WITHIN two weeks of celebrating his 17th birthday, Kanturk’s AJ Keating passed his driving test and a mere five days later he was off rallying.
His first event was a single-stage rally in Broadford, Clare. The car, a Fiat 128, like many more of that era, was relatively basic.
“It was my mother’s car actually and we fashioned a cage together with some heating pipes, everything else was bog standard.”
That description proved prophetic.
“I hit a bump coming into a left-hander and the car took off into the air and I ended up in a bog.”
But there was a positive.
“All I did was break the rotor arm in the distributor cap. I was towed over the finish line. My mother (Peg) looked at me and said, you don’t expect me to drive that car now, so you can keep it.”
The sentimental factor lasted for about six months until he acquired a Ford Escort Mexico (circa 1975) and within a week he was competing in the Munster Moonraker Forest Rally finishing an impressive 10th overall whilst still in secondary school.
That didn’t really cause any great stir within his fellow students, who had more “ordinary” sporting interests: “I was more of an oddity really as they were all playing football.”
However, to his astonishment, he was denied the Novice award — his first real rally trophy — he was informed by the clerk of the course (who shall not be mentioned to save embarrassment) that he wasn’t eligible to win the award.
The COC’s view was that “any driver that can finish 10th overall in this rally is not a novice and I am not giving it to you”.
Two weeks later AJ competed in the Tipperary Stonethrowers Rally.
“I finished sixth overall. The clerk of the course of that event had heard what happened in Cork and he told me as far as he was concerned I was still a novice and I won the award along with a class award and an award for being the youngest driver.
“My brother John won the rally and around 20 more drivers from north Cork won awards as well.”
The Mexico lasted about a year until AJ set off for college in England to study for the family business — Keating’s Bakeries. College was in Blackpool, home of Thomas Motors — sponsors of the legendary Billy Coleman.
Prior to leaving, AJ had ordered a Ford Escort RS2000 from Thomas Motors — a road car and one of the first to have the famous droop snoot (slanted front).
It wasn’t a “silver spoon” type deal as a car within the family business had to be exported back to the UK and in AJ’s case, the timing of the deal was just perfect. Yet, the RS was a little more than standard, it had much-improved suspension and engine capabilities. In reality, it was a rally specification.
It soon found its way back to Kanturk for rally purposes and for his college needs he bought an “ordinary” second-hand car.
The RS had a three-year tenure and class wins (Group 1) followed. He was denied an overall win on a rally in Mount Eagle (Kerry) by a one-minute penalty wrongly imposed by the organisers for an alleged jump-start. He returned the following year and won handsomely and undisputedly.
The move to a Mark 3 Ford Escort (400 VZB) took longer than expected with the shell prepared by T&B Motors. The transfer of the running gear from the RS2000 wasn’t a smooth transition and its debut in the Rally of the Lakes was short-lived.
“I then put a BDX engine into it and it was by far the quickest car I had driven.” AJ went on to win the Moonraker a few times.
An ex-Bertie Fisher Opel Manta 400 provided AJ with back-to-back victories (1985 and 1986) on the Fastnet Rally in Skibbereen and also a win in the Monaghan Rally (1985) that gave him great personal satisfaction.
“If I was to have a rally career again I definitely wouldn’t have driven the Mk 3, it was the most unreliable yolk I have ever driven.
“I was in the top three more often with that car and then it wouldn’t finish. The only thing that would stop the Manta was a stone wall, it was ultra-reliable.”
For most of his career, AJ was co-driven by his brother in law Fergus Connolly, originally from Drinagh in west Cork, who sadly passed away unexpectedly in 2006.
“To be honest, he was more than my brother in law, he was my best friend, we were real good pals, but I suppose that’s life.”
In the late 1980s, AJ crashed on the Tipperary Stonethrowers Rally and ended up in hospital but was discharged as the medics didn’t find anything wrong.
Yet, for years he suffered discomfort in his lower back. AJ’s visit to one particular chiropractor — some 20 years later — brought a startling revelation.
“He just said to me, ‘when did you break your back?’. It’s obvious there was a break but it’s covered in muscle now.”
After finishing with tarmac rallying, AJ purchased an ex-John Gilleece 2.3 Vauxhall Chevette and went back to the forests for about five years.
“I loved forest rallying. Tarmac rallying was supposed to be the stress reliever from work but it became too stressful. The fun was gone out of it.
“I enjoyed it, but it’s a different game now.”
The family business was involved in a merger in the late ’90s but subsequently closed about six years later. AJ now has other business interests including Little Rascals Funworld in Mallow and he is also involved with Spider Catcher — the back-breaking has been done.